quotes from The Articulate Mammal

We know for certain that language cannot emerge before it is programmed to emerge. Nobody has ever made a young baby talk though it seems that there is nothing much wrong with the vocal cords of a newborn infant, and from 5 or 6 months onward it can “babble” a number of the sounds needed in speech. Yet children utter few words before the age of 18 months. They have to wait for some biological trigger. p.72
Children seem to need this “unending rush of words”, and those who are deprived of it may lag behind in their development. p. 73
“Direct teaching and intensive practice have relatively little effect.” (this quote is from Eric Lennenberg’s list of hallmarks of biologically controlled behaviors from p. 71) p. 73
Even people who are not “naturally” superb athletes can sometimes win tennis tournaments through sheer hard work and good coaching. But the same is not true of language, where direct teaching seems to be a failure.” p. 73
The last two explanations seem to be supported by a Russian experiment (Slobin 1966). One group of infants was shown a doll, and three phrases were repeatedly uttered, “Here is a doll…. Take the doll…. Give me the doll.” Another group of infants was shown the doll, but instead thirty different phrses were uttered, such as “Rock the doll….Look for the doll.” The total number of words heard by both groups was the same, only the composition differed. Then the experimentersshowed the children a selection of toys, and asked them to pick out the dolls. To their surprise, the children in the second group, the ones who had heard a richer variety of speech, were considerably better at this task.
We may conclude then that parents who consciously try to “coach” their children by simplifying and repeating may be actually interfering with their progress. It does not pay to talk to children as if one was telling a foreign tourist how to get to the zoo. Language that is impverished is harder to learn, not simpler. Children appear to be natually “set” to extract a grammar for themselves, provided they have sufficient data at their disposal. Those who get on best are those who are exposed to a rich variety of language = IOW, those whose parents talk to them in a normal way. p. 76.
On page 78, she writes about practice, i.e. repetition and imitating. It is, or should be to language teachers, well known that children first learn irregular forms because they are salient, then regularize them as they learn and apply the rules too generally, and eventually settle back into marking the irregular forms. Imitation can interfere with the natural development of the acquisition process, is what I understand in reading this page.
These quotes apply to first language learning. Can they apply also to second language learning? Some people distort questions like this into the idea that we are saying second language learning is just like first language learning. That’s silly, the stuff of advertising slogans.
There’s a lot more from Aitchison I’ll be posting. I hope this inspires you to get the book, The Articulate Mammal, by Jean Aitchison.

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